Thoughts on Technique

By: Sarah Smith

Most musicians cringe at the thought of practicing technique. The horrible thought of hours of scales, arpeggios, articulation, and (possibly the worst) long tones, make even the most experienced players shy away from practicing. Practicing the basics is just considered boring and unmusical, but that is not how I have come to consider them.

Being a music student, I am wrought by hours of class, rehearsal, and homework (not to mention needing to split all my practice time between practicing aural skills, keyboard skills, and horn). I can hardly get in two hours of any practice, let alone practice for horn itself. So, one week I decided to spend almost all of my practice time on technique, and when I went in to my lesson the next week, I found a pleasant surprise. My solo repertoire had actually improved since week before. I was amazed--I had barely even looked at the music in a week, let alone played it. Yet, I had still made improvements.

What, I asked myself, could I attest to this miraculous event? Well, technique of course.   I focused most of my time on my harmonic exercises, scales, long tones, and tonguing; and when it came time to apply those exercises to my solo repertoire, many things that I had trouble with just felt and sounded easier. This experience changed my entire outlook on technique. No longer did I look at technique as a boring ritual that all musicians had to muscle through as some horrible right-of-passage. Now, it is a means to an end; because what are our solos, but beautifully expressed technique? If you do not believe me, let me give you some examples.

Think of a beautiful, slow passage that you love to play, but, no matter what you do, you just cannot get the phrasing quite right. You sing it and know exactly how you want to phrase it, but when you try to play it on the horn, you just cannot get your air to do what you want in order to make the phrase happen the way you want. So, what can you do? You can pull out your long tones! Pick a note, any nice easy note that is comfortable for you. Now, turn on your metronome (for a sense of pulse) and phrase that one note like you want to phrase your lyrical passage. If it feels a little strange to phrase one single note then sing the melody in your head and watch your music while you are phrasing. But this way, you can figure out what to do with your air to get the right phrasing, without worrying about wrong notes, or range, or anything else that might trip you up. Then go back and apply it to your lyrical passage!

Now, what if you have a really-fast, technical passage that requires really fast tonguing and fingering coordination? Well, break it down. Start with tonguing; you can ask your teacher for some exercises that help with tonguing. Whether it be single, double, of triple tonging, start out slowly and work your way up. Then you can apply your superb tonging technique to scales. Scales are good to use because usually fast, technical passages are just scales or patterns, and if you can figure out which scales are used or what the pattern is, then you can just apply the tonguing to the scales or pattern! Once you have your fast scales down, return to the piece and try out your improved skills!

I have a new found love for technique because it just helps every aspect of my playing and since I do not have to spend as much time ironing out the technical aspects of the piece I can spend more time developing my musical ideas. However, I am not trying to say that technique is a “quick fix." Any skill takes time to develop and master. Someone who has never run before cannot go out and run a marathon. It takes time to hone your body into a pristine running machine, and the same concept applies to horn playing (or any music making). Practicing technique is a way to achieve your musical goals as successfully as you possibly can, and I feel like that is what any musician wants.

June 22, 2017